Testimony (Shreve)

Anita Shreve, 2008
Little, Brown & Co.
308 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316067348

At a New England boarding school, a sex scandal is about to break. Even more shocking than the sexual acts themselves is the fact that they were caught on videotape.

A Pandora's box of revelations, the tape triggers a chorus of voices—those of the men, women, teenagers, and parents involved in the scandal—that details the ways in which lives can be derailed or destroyed in one foolish moment.

Writing with a pace and intensity surpassing even her own greatest work, Anita Shreve delivers in Testimony a gripping emotional drama with the impact of a thriller. No one more compellingly explores the dark impulses that sway the lives of seeming innocents, the needs and fears that drive ordinary men and women into intolerable dilemmas, and the ways in which our best intentions can lead to our worst transgressions (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Raised—Dedham, Massachusetts, USA
Education—B.A. Tufts University
Awards—PEN/L.L. Winship Award; O. Henry Prize
Currently—lives in Longmeadow, Massachusetts

Anita Shreve is the acclaimed author of nearly 20 books—including two works of nonfiction and 17 of fiction. Her novels include, most recently, Stella Bain (2013), as well as The Weight of Water (1997), a finalist for England's Orange prize; The Pilot's Wife (1998), a selection of Oprah's Book Club; All He Even Wanted (2003), Body Surfing (2007); Testimony (2008); A Change in Altitude (2010). She lives in Massachusetts. (From the publisher.)


For many readers, the appeal of Anita Shreve’s novels is their ability to combine all of the escapist elements of a good beach read with the kind of thoughtful complexity not generally associated with romantic fiction. Shreve’s books are loaded with enough adultery, eroticism, and passion to make anyone keep flipping the pages, but the writer whom People magazine once dubbed a “master storyteller” is also concerned with the complexities of her characters’ motivations, relationships, and lives.

Shreve’s novels draw on her diverse experiences as a teacher and journalist: she began writing fiction while teaching high school, and was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 1975 for her story, "Past the Island, Drifting." She then spent several years working as a journalist in Africa, and later returned to the States to raise her children. In the 1980s, she wrote about women’s issues, which resulted in two nonfiction books—Remaking Motherhood and Women Together, Women Alone—before breaking into mainstream fiction with Eden Close in 1989.

This interest in women’s lives—their struggles and success, families and friendships—informs all of Shreve’s fiction. The combination of her journalist’s eye for detail and her literary ear for the telling turn of phrase mean that Shreve can spin a story that is dense, atmospheric, and believable. Shreve incorporates the pull of the sea—the inexorable tides, the unpredictable surf—into her characters’ lives the way Willa Cather worked the beauty and wildness of the Midwestern plains into her fiction. In Fortune’s Rocks and The Weight of Water, the sea becomes a character itself, evocative and ultimately consuming. In Sea Glass, Shreve takes the metaphor as far as she can, where characters are tested again and again, only to emerge stronger by surviving the ravages of life.

A domestic sensualist, Shreve makes use of the emblems of household life to a high degree, letting a home tell its stories just as much as its inhabitants do, and even recycling the same house through different books and periods of time, giving it a sort of palimpsest effect, in which old stories burn through the newer ones, creating a historical montage. "A house with any kind of age will have dozens of stories to tell," she says. "I suppose if a novelist could live long enough, one could base an entire oeuvre on the lives that weave in and out of an antique house."

Shreve’s work is sometimes categorized as "women’s fiction," because of her focus on women’s sensibilties and plights. But her evocative and precise language and imagery take her beyond category fiction, and moderate the vein of sentimen-tality which threads through her books. Moreover, her kaleidoscopic view of history, her iron grip on the details and detritus of 19th-century life (which she sometimes inter-sperses with a 20th-century story), and her uncanny ability to replicate 19th-century dialogue without sounding fusty or fussy, make for novels that that are always absorbing and often riveting. If she has a flaw, it is that her imagery is sometimes too cinematic, but one can hardly fault her for that: after all, the call of Hollywood is surely as strong as the call of the sea for a writer as talented as Shreve. (Adapted from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews 
Shreve, consummate craftsman and frequent provocateur, is on fire in her latest novel, a mesmerizing read centering on a sex scandal at a prestigious Vermont prep school....Shreve views all of the characters, even the most flawed, with a good deal of compassion, revealing the heartbreaking consequences of a single reckless act.
Bette-Lee Fox - Booklist

Shreve's novels (Body Surfing; The Weight of Water) benefit from propulsive plots, and her mixed latest, with its timely theme of debauchery among children of privilege, does not lack in this regard. The first paragraph foreshadows a tragedy in which three marriages are destroyed, the lives of three students at a private school in Vermont are ruined, and death claims an innocent victim. The precipitating event is a sex tape involving three members of the boys' basketball team and a freshman girl. Beginning with an account of the debacle by the Avery School's then headmaster, and segueing to the voices of the participants in the orgy, plus their parents and others touched by the scandal, the narrative explores the widening consequences of a single event. Shreve's character delineation is astute, and the novel's moral questions—ranging from the boys' behavior to the headmaster's breach of legal ethics to the guilt of those involved in the death—are salient if heavy-handed, while the female characters are "wicked" in the way women have always been stereotypically portrayed. The novel is clever, but the revolving cast of narrators often feels predictable and forced, keeping the novel on the near side of credible.
Publishers Weekly

Recounting a student sex scandal at a prestigious Vermont private academy, this explosive novel from Shreve (Body Surfing) is more transfixing than a multicar pileup on the interstate. Told from the perspectives of the students involved, the school administrator, the parents, and numerous bystanders, the story keeps unraveling as it slingshots back and forth in time. At each revelation, readers keep hoping that things will turn out differently, that there will be survivors, despite the carnage before their eyes. Yet that one night can never be undone: "A single action can cause a life to veer off in a direction it was never meant to go." Shreve arrows in on many targets—underage drinking, instant exposure via the Internet, familial expectations, youthful insecurities, and peer pressure, among them—as she flawlessly weaves a tale that is mesmerizing, hypnotic, and compulsive. No one walks away unscathed, and that includes the reader. Highly recommended.
Library Journal

A sex scandal at a Massachusetts prep school seen through the eyes of students, teachers, parents and anyone else of even peripheral relevance. Shreve (Body Surfing, 2007, etc.) offers snapshot sketches within a framing device involving a researcher's interviews. Although the scandal—three of the school's basketball stars caught on tape being sexually serviced by a freshman girl—is almost tame by current real-life scandal standards, it is understandably life-shaking to those involved. Headmaster Mike Bordwin's attempts to contain the situation backfire when the girl's outraged parents call the police. His hard-won career disintegrates, as does his already shaky marriage. Those losses are nothing compared to his private sense of guilt; Bordwin knows Silas, a gifted scholarship student, was part of the filmed party only because he was very drunk, and he was drunk because he'd caught his mother in bed with Bordwin that morning. A sensitive moral innocent, Silas is horrified at his own behavior. Unable to face his girlfriend, he spends a cold New England night outside writing an apology and freezes to death. Naturally his mother, a devout Catholic, blames herself and her adulterous affair for the loss of her beloved only child. The other boys' mothers have their own guilt. Ellen sent Rob to boarding school to protect him from the very temptations to which he succumbed. Expelled, Rob now loses his early admission to Brown. Michelle, who has long sensed dark tendencies in James, now wishes she had been a stronger parent. James, who calls himself J.Dot, is a shallow unrepentant party animal. He blames the girl. As does Shreve, who paints "Sienna" as a 14-year-old vixen with no qualms about pretending she's the victim, although she purposefully set out to seduce the boys, particularly J.Dot. Afterward she moves on to a new school and, one suspects, new victims. Thoughtful Rob is the only one with a genuinely positive outlook on his future. Slick but lacking depth.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The story in Testimony is told from many different perspectives. Why do you think Anita Shreve chose this narrative style for the novel? Can you see any connection between this style and some of the novel’s themes

2. Some characters in Testimony—for example, the students—narrate from the first person point of view. For other characters, such as Mike and Owen, the author always uses the third person. Rob’s mother, Ellen, speaks in the second person. What do these different points of view tell you about the roles of various characters in the story? Did you find yourself empathizing most with any character in particular?

3. Several characters comment that if the sexual incident at Avery had occurred at a local public school, it would have drawn little or no attention. Do you agree with this assessment? Is it fair that this elite institution be held to a different standard?

4. When Mike initially brings J.Dot into his office and accuses him of taking advantage of the girl in the video, J.Dot replies that “She knew better” (123). Do you think that Sienna knew better? Setting aside the letter of the law, how responsible do you think Sienna is for what happened?

5. When Sienna calls her mother on Wednesday morning (129), she cries hysterically.  Her roommate, Laura, implies that Sienna may have been acting.  Do you think that Sienna is acting or are her emotions genuine? Is it possible for both to be true at the same time?

6. When Silas first reflects on what he did on the videotape, he repeats the phrase “I wanted” (43) many times. When Anna recounts her affair with Mike, she too uses this refrain, “I wanted” (210). What do Silas and Anna each want? Are these purely sexual wants or are they more complicated? Why do you think mother and son use the same language of desire to condemn themselves? How much do you think desire is to blame for what happened.

7. Discuss the evolution of Anna and Owen’s marriage over the course of the novel. Are you surprised that they do not separate after all that has happened? Do you believe that by the end of the book Owen has forgiven Anna?

8. To describe her relationship with Silas, Noelle often uses the metaphor of walking through doors together. Did you feel this was an apt metaphor? How does the significance of this image change as the novel progresses?

9. Some of the parents of the boys feel a keen sense of responsibility for their sons’ behavior. Ellen in particularly says, “And, of course, you are. You are responsible” (189). Do you believe the parents of J.Dot, Silas, and Rob made decisions that in some way led to this event How culpable should parents of teenagers feel for the behavior of their children?

10. As Silas writes in his journal, all his entries are addressed to Noelle. How does the tenor of the letters change over the course of the novel? Do you believe Noelle is capable of forgiving him? Should she forgive him?

11. Were you surprised when you learned who filmed the incident? All of the students involved seem to have made an unspoken agreement to protect this person’s identity. Do you agree with their reasons for doing so

12. One of the big questions driving Testimony is “Why did these students do what they did?” In his letter to Ms. Barnard, Rob writes that “It was an act without a why” (303). What does Rob mean by this Do you think the other three would agree with his assessment? If not, how might their answers be different?

13. What do you think will happen to the students in the future? What course can you see their lives taking in the months and years following the close of the novel?  How will they be affected by the incident and its aftermath?

14. At the end of the novel, Rob suggests that, in an unexpected way, his life may turn out better because of what happened at Avery (304). Do you agree with his logic?  Can you see any redemptive effects the scandal may have for other characters?
(Questions issued by publishers.)

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